|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Italian Branch of the MGS
Click here for a series of walks in the Sibillini Mountains (in English) where we accompany MGS member Jan Thompson on her hunt for wild flowers.
For a list of this Branch's Future Events, as well as reports from more recent Past Events, click here.
We started our day with a guided visit to the specialist rose nursery ‘Quando Fioriranno Le Rose’ set against the stunning backdrop of Assisi.
The name of the nursery comes from a story about St Francis. He went to visit Saint Clare in her convent in the town of Assisi during winter with snow on the ground. As he was leaving, she asked him when he would return. His reply was Quando fioriranno le rose (‘when the roses bloom’), upon which roses grew up out of the snow and came into bloom and Saint Clare presented him with a bouquet of them.
Owned by Paola Bianchi and run together with her husband Fabio who is also a professional photographer, the nursery features a rose garden full of antique and English roses which have been selected for multiple flowering, colour and fragrance. The guided visit was an excellent way to develop our knowledge of roses and to get to know some stunning varieties.
We then moved to the Bosco di San Francesco. While the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi is no doubt one of Assisi’s major attractions, few know of the nearby woods or venture along the trails where Francis himself and his friars walked in nature and dedicated themselves to contemplation.
After a light lunch we enjoyed a guided tour of the complex by the resident head gardener. We visited the garden around the ancient Benedictine monastery and the historic woodland park recently restored by FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano). Our walk was followed by an interesting presentation of traditional cooking from the time of the Benedictine sisters (1200-1300) to today.
It has taken over 2400 years to create what is known as the Agro Pontino, the fertile alluvial and agricultural plain just south of Rome. Sporadic attempts to reclaim the marshes date back to circa 400BC starting with the Volsci tribe, arch rivals of Rome for several hundred years. Then with the Romans, who completed the Appian Way across the marshes towards Brindisi in 312 BC. Several emperors and popes made further unsuccessful attempts at reclamation before the Mussolini government launched a drive in 1928 to drain the malarial marshes entirely, clear the vegetation and settle several hundred families from northern Italy. The towns of Latina and Sabaudia and several others were built and have remained. The book Mussolini’s Canal by Antonio Pennachi tells the latter story.
Any indigenous vegetation in the area remains only in the Circeo National Park which was our destination for April’s branch visit.
The park is composed of several distinct ecosystems. The Circeo Promontory rises to 541m then drops down dramatically to sea level. Its northern slope is covered by dense forests of hop-hornbeam, holm and downy oak which were dotted by the white-flowering manna ash. At its base there once extended forests of cork oaks of which only a few specimens remain. On its south-facing slope the higher temperatures and aridity give rise to a classic Mediterranean maquis: mastic, myrtle, strawberry tree and buckthorn higher up, and dwarf palm, Phoenician juniper and tree euphorbia further down.
Right at the western tip of the promontory immersed in this vegetation is the beautiful Hotel Punta Rossa which was our hotel for the night. Participants were met by garden designer Maria Teresa Lombardi who presented us with two beautiful vases of flowers from her own garden (under renovation, so not visited). One vase featured a delightful arrangement of blues, purples and pinks including Persicaria capitata (syn. Polygonum capitatum), Dianella tasmanica, and Dietes iridioides, and the other was filled with the pale yellow flowers of Clivia miniata var. citrina. Also from her garden, she brought a leaf from the giant-rooting chain fern Woodwardia radicans and invited participants to take a plantlet home. Together we then walked down through the steep terraces of the hotel’s garden created by Alesandra Venuti Battaglia to the rocky seashore. The garden is a testimony to her passion and is filled with Mediterranean natives as well as exotics such as Brunfelsia and frangipani.
The following day we were met by our guide who accompanied us first to enjoy a guided tour to the ruins of Villa Domiziano with its remarkable thermal baths, aqueduct and cistern dating from the first century. The complex is situated in a woodland zone on the banks of Lake Paola. We stopped and botanized, finding wild flowers such as Leopoldia comosa (tassel hyacinth), Umbilicus rupestris (navelwort), Serapias lingua (tongue orchid) and many more during our shady walk to the villa and back.
After lunch we made our way to the large dunes at the back of the beach which are populated by rabbits, foxes and porcupines who feast on the berries of Juniperus macrocarpa (syn. Juniperus oxycedrus subsp. macrocarpa). Interspersed in the massive bushes we saw Pancratium maritimum (sea daffodil), Euphorbia paralias (sea spurge), Helichrysum stoechas and Erica multiflora. On the beach itself we were introduced to an egagropilo, the round sphere of dried Posidonia oceanica (Neptune grass) created by the continual breaking down of the plant by the sea.
Our last stop of the day was at Torre Paola, one of the five Saracen towers which line the promontory’s coastline. Here we saw species of beach plants such as Crithmum maritimum (samphire or sea fennel), Glaucium flavum (yellow horn poppy) and Senecio leucanthemifolius (coastal ragwort)
The Circeo National Park offers varied and fascinating natural landscapes and archaeological attractions and we had a most rewarding trip.
The Italy Branch Annual Meeting and Plant Exchange was the starting point for a two-day meeting where members exchanged plants, visited three beautiful gardens (two of which belong to members) and spent time together in the glorious setting of a Tuscan winery with a wine tasting and dinner.
We met up at MGS Member John Werich’s home, Poggio all'Olmo. This lovely restored house and its grounds are in the heart of Tuscany, completely surrounded by woodland from which the porcini mushrooms had been sourced for our lunch.
We stayed that night at Fattoria alle Colle, a beautiful wine and olive farm situated in the breathtaking landscape of Val D’Orcia. The all-woman team produced a wide selection of award-winning wines for us to taste.
Next morning we visited Bosco della Ragnaia, a private woodland park and garden located on the edge of San Giovanni D’Asso. It has been created by the American artist and landscape architect Sheppard Craige (also an MGS member in Italy) and it is in continual development. It is a unique garden and work of art – its woods and steep ravine host sculptures which provoke us to consider the three universal themes of uncertainty, nature and time.
We also admired the newer ‘formal’ garden with long vistas and avenues of trees and interesting design details. The Bosco is open to the public free of charge every day: why not drop in next time you are passing?
Our final garden visit was to Villa Treci, the home of Adelmo Borlesi, an architect and garden designer who has gradually transformed three hectares of clay and brambles into a beautiful dry garden.
We were keen to see the new 150-metre flower bed with some 8,000 drought-resistant ornamental grasses, perennials and bulbs, created with Enrico Carlon of the nursery Strano Ma Verde. Most fascinating is the natural lake which captures the run-off from under the rest of the garden and is filled with many aquatic plants and a rowing boat.
In the delightful rolling countryside of the Maremma near Capalbio (GR) we visited three useful, beautiful and quirky gardens, all within a stone’s throw of one another.
Botanical Dry Garden©
Examples of many varieties of plants for specific purposes were on show, such as drought-resistant topiary.
We were especially taken with the use of Phyla nodiflora as an alternative to grass lawns and walk-ways throughout.
Il Giardino La Ferreira
Il Giardino dei Tarrocchi
The statues took 17 years to create and Niki worked with local artisans to make each steel frame, cover it with concrete and then embellish it with mirrors, coloured glass and ceramics. The shapes and forms are fantastical, the scale is colossal, the colours are kaleidoscopic and the choice of infinite glass and ceramic fragments is inspired.
One of the most impressive statues was L’Imperatrice, or Empress, in which Niki lived for long periods during the works. Inside, a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen are covered by hundreds of thousands of Venetian mirror fragments creating a monochromatic world of light and refraction. Outside, the enormous opulent body is simply awe-inspiring and beautiful and personifies the artist’s style.
The artist considered the sculpture park the expression of her life’s work and it is a truly wonderful achievement and a garden well worth visiting.Text by Yvonne Barton, photos by Sergio Ungaro
Our recent trip to Piedmont gave us a chance to enjoy its varied and beautiful landscapes, parks and several private gardens designed by renowned landscape architects.
An hour’s drive then to the UNESCO heritage site, Oropa Sanctuary, which is the most important and largest sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary to be found in the Alps, which was to be our lodging for the night. The huge complex is surrounded by mountains and the unspoilt nature of Sacro Monte Nature Reserve and the Oropa Botanical Garden. We visited the garden, which is run by WWF and hosts about 500 species and varieties of plants. The subdivision of wild species made it easy to observe, in a restricted area, much of the spontaneous flora of the reserve. There was also a pretty, ornamental alpine rock garden and a beech woodland. We were rather late for the bulbs and rather early for the summer-flowering plants but spent a delightful hour in the late afternoon sun.
We then drove to the Strada Panoramica Zegna, constructed in 1938 by Ermenegildo Zegna, founder of the Italian luxury men’s clothing empire, as part of his philanthropic vision to create wealth and well-being in his home Trivero and its outlying villages. Zegna imported more than 500,000 conifers and rhododendrons to complete the project. On our return, guided by Laura Zegna, fourth generation descendent of Ermenegildo, we visited her parents’ delightful garden designed by Pietro Porcinai (Florence 1910-1986), renowned as one of the most outstanding Italian landscape architects of the twentieth century. This was a rolling, intimate, luxuriant garden perfectly integrated within its surroundings. Very particular too was the winter garden under glass, featuring walls of cork.
Next, we visited the private Villa Peyrani where we saw the beautiful extensive gardens, decorative orchards and potagers laid out around the villa, again by Paolo Pejrone and the enthusiastic new owners.
We departed for Saluzzo and a guided visit to the 12000 m2 private botanical garden Giardino Botanico di Villa Bricherasio with its creator Domenico Montevecchi. A fruit grower by profession, Domenico has dedicated his passion and expertise to encourage plants from three phytoclimatic zones - mediterranean, cold temperate and continental - to flourish. He favours mixed beds along English lines and they were a perfect way to show off the innumerable species hosted in the garden.
We enjoyed a three-day tour with guided visits to several formal gardens in and near to the capital featuring rich ornamentation including sculptures, monuments and grottoes.
Day one: we started out in the delightful little town of Castel Gandolfo with a lunch overlooking Lake Albano before making our way to Giardino di Villa Barberini. Opened to the public for the first time in 2014 by Pope Francis, the gardens of the papal summer residence boast a scale that only rich and powerful popes might conceive of. The garden featured immense parterres, shady holm oak areas, elegant statues, sweeping views and first-century Roman ruins. As a whole it is a most romantic and delightful garden.
Day two: having survived the crowds and queues that one must endure to get into the Vatican Museum (it attracts over 33,000 visitors a day), we were fortunate to be whisked by our guide into the gardens and a private world of calm and magnificence. The Giardini del Vaticano date to 1279, when Pope Nicholas III re-established the Vatican as the papal residence and it is easy to understand how all popes have enjoyed the sanctuary and solace of this garden which seems to float over Rome. It took a full two hours to walk around the French (roses), English (woodland) and Italian (Italianate) gardens and almost always the imposing dome of St Peter’s remained in view. While the gardens may not have been designed as a whole, the popes who created areas of the garden or built monuments and added sculptures each left a symbol of their character and the gardens provided a unique opportunity to view the Vatican and its history.
After lunch we made our way to Villa Medici which stands on the Pincio hill, above the Spanish Steps, and commands views across the city. Ferdinando de' Medici, cardinal at the age of 13, collector and sponsor, purchased the site in 1576 and asked the Florentine architect Ammannati to build a fabulous palace to mark the ascendancy of the Medici and to assert their permanent presence in Rome. It also served as a museum for his collection of antique masterpieces. A series of grand gardens, recalling the botanical gardens created at Pisa and at Florence by the cardinal's father, Cosimo I de' Medici, sheltered in plantations of pines, cypresses and oaks and included a belvedere and an ornate pavilion. Magnificent Roman bas-reliefs and statues adorn the villa and garden and the gipsoteca is a fascinating repository of original gypsum moulds used to recreate antique statuary. The villa remained in the possession of the Medici family until 1803 when it was sold to France to house the Académie de France à Rome which runs it today.
Day three: In the past high walls would have meant that the Giardini Segreti, Villa Borghese were enjoyed only by visitors to Cardinal Scipio Borghese’s villa, hence the name “secret” gardens. They were designed to awe guests with fabulous rare flowers and exotic fruits while exquisite bird song filled the air. Today the gardens are in the hands of the Rome Council and are rather run down due to underfunding, but our guide, the head gardener, gave us an excellent tour. He was able to take us back in time and explain how the gardens might have been planted in the early 1600s. Delightful parterres constructed with simple terracotta bricks are as the originals and would have been planted with wheat and poppies, sunflowers and other field flowers which today can be seen reproduced in the garlands adorning the walls of the beautiful aviary. Today’s plantings are more varied but are designed to recreate the same effects as in the past and include: Alkanna tinctoria, whose roots were ground to make rouge and lipstick in Roman times, Acanthus, Achillea, alliums, citrus, Cistus, Fritillaria, Lychnis, peonies and roses. The Iris x germanica were still in flower as were the Drimia maritima (syn. Scilla maritima) and, had we been a couple of weeks earlier, we could have seen up to 250 varieties of narcissi and tulips. We walked round to the back of the villa to see the deer park planted with long avenues of holm oak where hunting would have taken place. Finally, in the Valle del Graziano, a beautiful rolling woodland, we saw the oldest plane trees in Rome which date back some 600 years. These are magnificent specimens of Platanus orientalis which originated in southern Europe, rather than the hybrids we are used to seeing which derive from the North American species Platanus occidentalis.
Our final trip was to visit the garden of Palazzo Colonna sul Colle di Quirinale. This is one of the oldest and largest villas in Rome, dating from the 13th century and its magnificent garden was developed in its present form in the late 16th century by Cardinal Ascanio Colonna but has been continually enriched by the Colonna family throughout their 800 years in occupation. When you enter the courtyard with its perfectly clipped citrus trees, you are transported into a private world of magnificence. At the back of the villa, steep steps took us up various terraces planted with olives and citrus, hedged with Pittosporum and shaded by holm oaks. Geometric parterres, gorgeous statues and a delightful fountain run all the way down the steps – the fountain was designed to recreate the larger one at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. After a steep ascent one is rewarded by lovely views across Rome to the Quirinale and the Vittoriano. It really could not be more perfect. After re-entering the palace we also enjoyed a guided visit to the magnificent baroque Colonna Art Gallery.